It's the sad reality of sports these days that no discussion of athletics is complete without mentioning the use of drugs -- be they painkillers, steroids, or spray made from deer antler velvet (whatever that is). No athlete, no league is immune anymore.
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For years, the prevailing thought has been that the NHL doesn't have a performance-enhancing drug problem. It isn't a part of hockey's culture, people claim. Steroids wouldn't help hockey players score goals in the same way they would help, say, ballplayers slug pitches out of the park. There hasn't been much evidence to prove those claims wrong. When the NHL created a woefully overdue testing program in 2005, there was no rash of positive tests that suggested a problem. And every four years since 1998, a large number of NHLers undergo strict WADA testing in order to be eligible for the Winter Olympics. There have been no earth-shattering revelations from that program, either. But of course, thanks to Lance Armstrong, we all know now that the absence of positive tests doesn't necessarily prove that all is well.
The NHL claimed to be ahead of the curve, but over the last five years, that curve has sped by. Under the new CBA, however, the league and its players are taking steps, as small as they might be, to catch up. Buried in the 24-page memo of understanding are a few substantive changes to the NHL's drug-testing program, notably that the league will begin testing during the playoffs and administer a limited number of tests during the off-season. That's a no-brainer, and probably the only concrete step forward the league made to its policy. Individual no-notice testing has been introduced this season; previously, all testing was done on a team-by-team basis.
But a number of hot button, of-the-moment issues were not substantively addressed, and have just been put on the back burner for now. On the subject of HGH testing, which Major League Baseball recently announced it would test for in-season, the NHL and the players' association agreed only to establish a committee to study the issues that surround HGH testing and make recommendations later.
Perhaps it's true that hockey players don't need bulky muscle mass to gain an edge, but what about taking something that sharpens their alertness? Similarly, a committee "will study the use of stimulants and amphetamines and make recommendations... including whether or not to establish a testing program." The league wants to add certain stimulants to its prohibited substances list, but during negotiations the PA balked. The players agreed only to add illegal substances to the list; and not, say, legal drugs used in an illegal manner. So, for instance, a player who might pop a couple of Adderall that he does not have a prescription for would not be in violation. But rest assured, methadrine is totally off the table.
The most curious health and safety issue addressed in the memo, however, is not really of the performance-enhancing type. The NHL and NHLPA have established a joint committee to study the use of Ambien by players. "It's not a huge concern, but it is a concern," says NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. The often-hectic travel schedules of NHL teams, which routinely fly out of cities late at night immediately after games, can wreak havoc on a player's sleep patterns, and the prescription aid, it seems, is a popular remedy in hockey locker rooms. In his enlightening three-part story on the late Derek Boogaard, New York Times writer John Branch quoted longtime AHL journeyman and former Islander Mitch Fritz: "I've been on teams where it's pretty out in the open, and guys will say: 'I have Ambien. Need an Ambien?'"
Though Ambien isn't thought to be addictive if taken properly, prolonged use is not recommended and could lead to drug dependence. It isn't something that would help on the ice, certainly not; but it is something that could harm a player in the long run, as a person. Monitoring usage is the responsible thing to do, and as part of the new CBA, the league has codified its concern. In Branch's sad tale of Boogaard's life and death, he found that the enforcer had received as many as 25 prescriptions for it from 10 doctors over a six-month span. Branch painted a startling picture of how easy it seemed to be for Boogaard to feed an addiction that would ultimately lead to his untimely death in May 2011. So now, each team must designate a person on staff to record and monitor the prescription drug use of all players. It isn't a perfect system -- players like Boogaard can and will get what they need illicitly if necessary -- but at least it will make it more difficult for players to abuse the system.
Regardless, moving forward, the NHL and its players shouldn't let these issues fade into the shadows cast by an exciting new season. There is more work to be done this summer. Important work. As critical as HRR and pensions were to both the league and the players, so, too, should the health and safety of the players and the integrity of the game.